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Why peace seems elusive in Sri Lanka

By Brahma Chellaney
September 24, 2009 12:16 IST
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Four months after crushing the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government is still unable to define peace, even as it has embarked on the further expansion of an already-large military, says Brahma Chellaney.

If war-scarred Sri Lanka is to re-emerge as a tropical paradise, it has to build enduring peace through genuine inter-ethnic equality and by making the transition from being a unitary State to being a federation that grants local autonomy. Yet even in victory, the Sri Lankan government seems unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority.

A process of national reconciliation anchored in federalism and multi-culturalism indeed can succeed only if possible war crimes and other human-rights abuses by all parties are independently and credibly investigated.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged civilian casualties were 'unacceptably high,' especially as the war built to a bloody crescendo earlier this year. The continuing air of martial triumph in Sri Lanka, though, is making it difficult to heal the wounds of war through three essential 'Rs': Relief, recovery and reconciliation.

In fact, the military victory bears a distinct family imprint: President Mahinda Rajapaksa was guided by two of his brothers, Gotabaya, the powerful defence secretary who fashioned the war plan, and Basil, the presidential special adviser who formulated the political strategy. Yet another brother, Chamal, is the ports and civil aviation minister who awarded China a contract to build the billion dollar Hambantotta port, on Sri Lanka's southeast.

In return, Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapon systems that decisively titled the military balance in its favour, but also the diplomatic cover to prosecute the war in defiance of international calls to cease offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties.

Through such support, China has succeeded in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in India's backyard that sits astride vital sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean region.

India also is culpable for the Sri Lankan bloodbath. Having been outwitted by China, India was compelled to lend critical assistance to Colombo, lest it lose further ground in Sri Lanka.

From opening an unlimited line of credit for Sri Lanka to extending naval and intelligence cooperation, India provided war-relevant support in the face of a deteriorating humanitarian situation in that island-nation.

Sinhalese nationalists now portray President Rajapaksa as a modern-day incarnation of Dutugemunu, a Sinhalese ruler who, according to legend, vanquished an invading Tamil army led by Kind Elara more than 2,000 years ago. But months after the Tamil Tigers were crushed, it is clear the demands of peace extend far beyond the battlefield.

What is needed is a fundamental shift in government's policies to help create greater inter-ethnic equality, regional autonomy and a reversal of the State-driven militarisation of society. But Rajapaksa, despite promising to address the root causes of conflict, has declared: 'Federalism is out of the question.'

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from Sri Lanka's decision to press ahead with a further expansion of its military. Not content with increasing the military's size fivefold since the late 1980s to more than 200,000 troops today, Colombo is raising the strength further to 300,000, in the name of 'eternal vigilance.' Soon after the May 2008 victory, the government, for example, announced a drive to recruit 50,000 new troops to help control the northern areas captured from the rebels.

The Sri Lankan military already is bigger than that of Britain and Israel. The planned further expansion would make the military in tiny Sri Lanka larger than the militaries of major powers like France, Japan and Germany.

By citing a continuing danger of guerrilla remnants reviving the insurgency, Rajapaksa is determined to keep a hyper-militarised Sri Lanka on something of a war footing.

Yet another issue of concern is the manner the government still holds nearly 300,000 civilians in camps where, in the recent words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, the 'internally displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.'

Such detention risks causing more resentment among the Tamils and sowing the seeds of future unrest. The internment was intended to help weed out rebels, many of whom already have been identified and transferred to military sites.

Those in the evacuee camps are the victims and survivors of the deadly war. To confine them in the camps against their will is to further victimise and traumatise them.

Sri Lanka's interests would be better served through greater transparency. It should grant the UN, International Red Cross and nongovernmental organisations at home and abroad unfettered access to care for and protect the civilians in these camps, allowing those who wish to leave the camps to stay with relatives and friends.

Then there is the issue of thousands of missing people, mostly Tamils. Given that many families are still searching for missing members, the government ought to publish a list of all those it is holding -- in evacuee camps, prisons, military sites and other security centres. Even suspected rebels in custody ought to be identified and not denied access to legal representation.

Bearing in mind that thousands of civilians were killed just in the final months of the war, the authorities should disclose the names of those they know to be dead -- civilians and insurgents -- and the possible circumstances of their death.

The way to fill the power vacuum in the Tamil-dominated north is not by dispatching additional army troops in tens of thousands, but by setting up a credible local administration to keep the peace and initiate rehabilitation and reconstruction after more than a quarter of a century of war. Yet there is a lurking danger that the government may seek to change demography by returning to its old policy of settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas.

More fundamentally, such have been the costs of victory that Sri Lankan civil society stands badly weakened. The wartime suppression of a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in peacetime, undermining democratic freedoms and creating a fear psychosis.

Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest and seizure of property. Public meetings cannot be held without government permission. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

For the process of reconciliation and healing to begin in earnest, it is essential the government give up wartime powers and accept, as the UN human rights commissioner has sought, 'an independent and credible international ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law' by all parties during the conflict.

According to Ms Pillay, 'A new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all, hinges upon such an in-depth and comprehensive approach.'

Rather than begin a political dialogue on regional autonomy and a more level playing field for the Tamils in education and government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by the post-victory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism opposed to the devolution of powers to the minorities.

The hard-line constituency argues that the Tamils in defeat shouldn't get what they couldn't secure through three decades of unrest and violence.

Indeed, such chauvinism seeks to tar federalism as a potential forerunner to secession, although the Tamil insurgency sprang from the State's rejection of decentralisation and power-sharing. The looming parliamentary and presidential elections also make devolution difficult, even though the Opposition is splintered and Rajapaksa seems set to win a second term.

Add to the picture the absence of international pressure, despite the leverage provided by a cash-strapped Sri Lankan economy. The United States enjoys a one-country veto in the International Monetary Fund, yet it chose to abstain from the recent IMF vote approving a desperately needed $2.8 billion loan to Sri Lanka.

In the face of China's stonewalling in the UN, Ban Ki-moon has been unable to appoint a UN special envoy on Sri Lanka, let alone order a probe into possible war crimes there. By contrast, the UN carried out a recently concluded investigation into Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza earlier this year.

Today, reversing the militarisation of society, ending the control of information as an instrument of State policy and promoting political and ethnic reconciliation are crucial to post-conflict peace-building and to furthering the interests of all Sri Lankans -- Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. So also is the need to discard the almost mono-ethnic character of the security forces.

Colombo has to stop dragging its feet, as it has done for long, on implementing the Constitution's 13th amendment, which requires the ceding of some powers at the provincial level. But these tasks are unlikely to be addressed without sustained international diplomatic intervention.

As world history attests, peace sought to be achieved through the suppression and humiliation of an ethnic community has proven elusive. It will be a double tragedy for Sri Lanka if making peace proves more difficult than making war.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is on the international advisory council of the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka.

Also read: 'Prabhakaran was a good weapon to use', Nitin Gokhale, who has just published a book on Sri Lanka, told, while two United Nations officials told us how concerned they are about situation in the Tamil refugee camps.

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Brahma Chellaney